Interview: Will Greenwood previews British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand

Sports Mole discusses the British and Irish Lions' highly-anticipated tour of New Zealand with England World Cup winner Will Greenwood.

Four years ago, the British and Irish Lions celebrated a massive feat by sealing their first series win in 16 years with a 2-1 triumph over Australia, and now Warren Gatland and his men face an even tougher beast.

The 41-man squad filled with the best of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland will take on world champions New Zealand across three Tests beginning on June 24.

Given that it has been 46 years since the Lions won a series in New Zealand, the size of the task is monumental, but former England star Will Greenwood believes that the players will grab the opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

Sports Mole caught up with the 2003 World Cup winner to discuss the huge injury blow to the squad, the disrupted preparations and the chances of native New Zealander Gatland guiding the Lions to history.

Will Greenwood during a charity match warmup on December 3, 2011© PA Photos

Let's start with the injury problems. Obviously the big news is that Billy Vunipola won't make the tour. How big a blow is that?

"On a personal level for Billy it's obviously a huge disappointment because he's a competitive beast. Even with one arm hanging off him against Exeter he was still brilliant, so for him it's a great shame that he won't get the opportunity to stand opposite the All Blacks three times and have a dig at them. From a collective perspective it's hugely disappointing for the Lions squad because if you've got any chance of winning in New Zealand, you want your best players available to you, and if you're to list the top 30 players in the northern hemisphere, to list the top 30 players in the world, Billy Vunipola walks into that, probably makes top 10 in both. It just makes the challenge that much harder."

What do you make of Warren Gatland's decision to call up James Haskell?

"On an individual level this is his last chance. I think in 2021 he'll be 36. He's always been someone who has been there or thereabouts. He must have been close in 2013, he was part of that squad. I'm delighted for him, what a tour it will be. From a collective perspective, what a tight call it must have been. You look at the people who are able to play in that back-row slot - Ryan Wilson, Josh Strauss, Dan Leavy - the list goes on. Nathan Hughes must have thought that if Billy dropped out he would be next in line. Haskell's got the nod and he's the sort of character that will absolutely make the most of it and we wish him all the very best."

England's Billy Vunipola in action against Australia on June 25, 2016© SilverHub

They haven't been able to get the whole squad training together because of the players' other commitments. Almost two thirds of the squad were missing from the training camp in Wales. How much do you think that disruption will affect them considering that they fly out to New Zealand on Monday?

"It's another challenge and I think we as the media, pundits and journalists can sometimes talk about that yet players at the age of 22/23 feel they're immortal, love their training and it's just another obstacle that they have to leap over and they leap over it with gay abandon.

"I think the people who are most affected by it are often the coaches. Obviously Gatland and the guys would love an increased time with them, but we always know with Lions tours that because of when it falls in the calendar... it's got to be at the back end of the season so the players have time to rest before the next season. Nothing's ideal. It means they have to get on the plane straight away the second the season's over, but if you're picking the best of the best then the best of the best are likely to be involved in finals - that's why they're on the tour. So, it's part and parcel of the whole challenge."

With that being said, do you think that the players who come into the squad late will be able to re-focus quickly?

"Yeah, absolutely. We can talk about how difficult the Lions tour might be to win but not one of those lads in that squad is thinking that. We [media] think about that as we do the stats, we look at the performances historically in New Zealand - the players don't give a flying monkeys about that. They believe they're the best. The Irish lot beat [the All Blacks] last year, Wales have gone close before, a few of the Lions guys were in the England team that beat New Zealand at Twickenham a few years back, England have gone 18 from 18, so the players are often oblivious to the enormity of the challenge. They'll just knuckle down and have a crack at it."

You know what it's like to play on the international stage. For the players, do you think the emotion and pride is different when representing the Lions?

"That's a really good question. Some players, for example Martin Johnson, would have the same intensity playing for his pub team as he would for the Lions - that's what makes him a great Lion. The great Lions are those unbelievable competitors that don't care who, where, what they're playing. So, it's genuinely just another game because for them, just another game means something very different to the vast majority of the public perception. If it's just another game, it doesn't really matter, who cares what happens? That's what a world-class athlete thinks. Just another game is another opportunity to be the best you can be in your sport. That's what you need to win."

Lions head coach Warren Gatland smiles after their victory during the International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and British & Irish Lions at ANZ Stadium on July 6, 2013© Getty Images

Would you apply that same approach when considering the potential rivalry within the squad? Lions regularly play against each other on the international stage, so how easy do you think it is for them to find that unity?

"I think the common bond allows them to gel pretty quickly. The enormity of the challenge gets the mind focused and I think there's so much player movement now between clubs. Inter-club rivalry, inter-European competition, international stage, 10 international fixtures a year, I think that aspect of it is no longer the challenge it might want to be."

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen recently said that there is an expectation on the Lions due to the 20,000 fans travelling out there. Would you agree with that claim?

"I think there's always an expectation because you're representing one of the most recognised badges on the sporting planet, so there's a prerequisite that you should give up your all and empty the tank. There's definitely expectation on the Lions and the players wouldn't want it any other way."

Most of the bookies are backing a series whitewash for the All Blacks. How realistic is it in your opinion that the Lions can get something over there?

"I think the bookmakers have got the All Blacks at 3/1 on, the Lions at 4/1 outsiders, or 3.5/1 outsiders for the first Test. It gets progressively worse. It's harder to win the longer the tour goes on. I think it's a critical first Test in Auckland. I think if they lose the first Test in Auckland, to go back to back against the All Blacks is nigh on impossible. So, I think June 24 - it's an obvious thing to say - I think the All Blacks could lose the first Test and win the series, but I don't think the Lions could lose the first Test and win the series."

If you were in Warren Gatland's position, how would you approach this series and where do you think the biggest selection dilemmas are?

"The beauty of the Lions is, we play on paper before in a fantasy 15 style format, but the reality is very different. Some unknowns have gone on to be great Lions and some great international players have not filled the jersey. I think we can have a perception on who we might think will make it, but history tells us that the first Test team will be very different from what we perceive it to be in advance of the tour."

The British & Irish Lions celebrate their victory in Australia on July 06, 2013.© Getty Images

Do you think the 2013 series win over Australia will be in the back of Gatland's mind?

"It gives him a template of how to do it, of how to win and how to get the best out of players because he certainly did it there. Most importantly I think one of his greatest qualities is backing himself in selection. He picked 13 Welshmen and dropped Brian O'Driscoll for the first Test in 2013. With that, the Irish were after him, they couldn't believe that he'd dropped their greatest son. The one thing about Gatland is he doesn't do Hollywood, he does reality, and I think the reality is what you need to have a chance of winning in New Zealand."

Which players do you think or hope will impress for the Lions during this series?

"I'll pick one from each nation. Tadhg Furlong, he's had an outstanding two years as tighthead for Ireland. Stuart Hogg would be the most obvious Scotsman of the three and if the Lions are going to score 30 points in a Test match, which is normally what you need to beat the All Blacks, then I think by definition he will have played well.

"If you go to Wales, I hope Sam Warburton can be out on the pitch if they win the series. He tore his hamstring off his bone in the second Test in 2013 and was in the trophy lift with Alun Wyn Jones when the moment came but he'd like to be out there. From an English perspective, there's lots to choose from. I hope Owen Farrell shows the world what I think a lot of English people know, that he's a bloody awesome rugby player."

The British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand starts on 3rd June, exclusively on Sky Sports. It is part of the biggest ever summer of sport on Sky Sports, which also includes the ICC Champion's Trophy, The Open and F1.

Lipstick on his collar told a tale on Billy Vunipola on June 25, 2016
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